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STYLE: GARDENS : Grass Guru

July 25, 1993|JUDITH SIMS

In a paradisiacal Malibu setting, where ocean waves are echoed by waves of green, yellow and silver grasses, nurseryman John Greenlee showcases the hottest "new" plants to come along in decades: ornamental grasses.

Several Southern California landscape designers now incorporate grasses into their designs--Nancy Goslee Power and Robert Fletcher among them--"but it's all in private gardens," Greenlee says. "Very little is being seen by the public."

Greenlee, 38, discovered ornamental grasses in 1984, when he and then-partner Mike Sullivan, a landscape architect, designed a garden "to look like Pasadena 300 years ago." Their research led them to ornamental grasses, but nothing was available locally. So Greenlee flew to Baltimore to check out a specialty nursery. "I was standing in a field of these grasses," he says, "and I told myself, 'This is it. I have to be involved in these things.' "

Three years later he started Greenlee Nursery, a wholesale business with a mail-order catalogue, behind his Pomona residence, and two years after that he planted a two-acre growing field/display garden near Malibu. (Both locations are open by appointment only.) More recently, Greenlee has written "The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses" (Rodale Press), and he can soon be seen on the PBS gardening show "The New Garden." Eventually, Greenlee plans to expand his back-yard Pomona operation to include a retail nursery where home gardeners can find Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' , Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' , various stipas and other grasslike plants such as sedges.

"Just look at this," Greenlee says, pointing to a large clump of grass with tall, delicate flower heads nodding in the Malibu breeze. " Stipa gigantea looks like a curtain of silk, but you can see right through it. Nothing catches the light like a stipa; it's like a spider web."

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